The Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God holds a place in my life and in my heart that will take me a lifetime to unpack. It has touched me personally on three significant occasions in my ministry.
As an Episcopalian, a newly ordained deacon, actually, I had become friends with the local Anglo-Catholics. Having been raised what is called “broad church”—which means basically sticking to the Book of Common Prayer without, on the one hand rejecting the ceremonial practices of the church, and on the other, adding too much “popery”—I was intrigued by the more Catholic leaning side of the Anglican patrimony, and had taken a confessor, and a mentor, in the local High Church priest, Fr. Al Kimel.
It was he who taught me how to find a prayer-rule “that works.” He had the particularl skill to curb my zeal and desire for some sort of over the top idea, and to temper it with reality, peace, and grace. His direction for me was along the lines of our Orthodox spiritual fathers who teach, “one prayer said from the heart is more valuable than ten prayers said in rote fashion from a book.” Remarkably—and a story for another time—Fr. Kimel, after a brief sojourn in the Roman Catholic Church, is today an Orthodox Priest in southwest Virginia.
Fr. Kimel had been called to Johnstown, PA, to be the rector of the Episcopal Church there that summer—it would have been the summer of 2001. His successor, who would become my new confessor and mentor, was Fr. Dow Sanderson, who would be moving to Charleston from rural Orangeburg, SC, by the end of that August.
So I was invited to Fr. Dow’s “going away” service—his last liturgy in Orangeburg; it was the “highest” service in which I’d ever served. Lots of Anglican Chanting, lots of incense, the mass served with three sacred ministers—I, the deacon—wearing a dalmatic, and a biretta. I’d never word a dalmatic and biretta before, and I’ve never worn one since. It was the Assumption of Mary, as they called it. I didn’t have any clue whatsoever about what it was that we were celebrating. I vaguely recall some saying that Mary was “assumed into heaven, body and soul.” This was my introduction to a feast that would mark significant turning points in my life.
Beginning with his arrival to Charleston, Fr. Dow mentored me with a great amount of kindness and grace, mixed with some good puns and southern humor. I was ordained an Episcopal priest on September 8, 2001, the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, another celebration about which I had no idea. We’d never really thought about her birth before! “It isn’t in the Bible,” after all. I met with Fr. Dow every Monday, as I recall, for mass and breakfast, and often on Tuesdays for book- or Bible-study. I learned a great amount about Orthodoxy during those visits—as we sat is his library-like office, surrounded by many icons.
By the following spring, I wasn’t sure if I was having a personality conflict in the parish I was serving, or a vocational crisis, catalyzed by the weekly conversations with Fr. Dow, among others. It was clear by Western Easter that this was not merely a personality conflict, but that my wife and I had come to the very real and blunt conclusion that we could not stay away from Orthodoxy any longer, studying it only in books, and talking about it as if it were dinner conversation.
In a miraculous series of events, I resigned my orders, having also undergone basically a year of catechetical instruction in private and personal meetings with an Orthodox priest, Fr. John Breck. My family and I were received into the Orthodox faith July 7, 2002, at Holy Ascension, from which, as I write this, I am preparing to be sent.
The Miracle of Time
I applied to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, to which I was admitted, and our first day on campus was a year later, to the day, after our service with Fr. Dow, my former mentor and teacher: August 15, the Dormition of the Mother of God. We arrived to the door of our Apartment—guess which number!—15 in the eight-plex (as it was called), under the protection of the Mother of God.
Providentially, I have served the Dormition 15 times now—I believe all of them at Holy Ascension, my beloved parish. I have come to appreciate this beautiful feast for what I have taken of it into my own soul: that the Dormition, as seen in the Holy Icon, is the Divine reversal, or fulfillment, of the Lord’s Nativity.
Instead of Mary, the Mother of God, holding the tender new-born Jesus in her arms in the darkness of the cave, Jesus, the Lord of Glory, is holding the newly-born-into-heaven Mother of God in his divine arms in the brightness of heaven. It is the gift that every single Christian desires, and the hope of all humanity: to be welcomed personally into the Kingdom by the King himself.
I have come to enjoy the blessing of flowers at the Feast, as a sign of the beauty of the Mother of God, and have devoted part of my own life to a beautiful garden of such flowers. And Donald Livingston, (with Sam Williamson, now Brother John, at Holy Cross Hermitage) and his flock of trusted helpers, have cultivated a beautiful garden of delight within the sacred walls of Holy Ascension, from which we now draw our flowers for such a blessing. Shortly, the garden will be overseen by a beautiful floral icon of the Mother of God, painted by our own Dee Rhodes.
I’ve seen through these years the remarkable joy that comes from and through the Mother of God. For an “outsider”—one not raised within the Orthodox Tradition—I speak personally—it is sometimes difficult to sense the piety and love for the Mother of God from “the inside out.” For us who are adult converts, our love for the Mother of God comes through labor and study, and eventually through marinating (pun intended) in the feast(s). It doesn’t flow naturally, but nothing could be more natural than to love and thank and behold the mystery. It is enshrouded in the ever-Virgin Mary, whose “yes” to God I hope to make my own.
So it is no small wonder, after years of these signposts in my life, that, as I turn to the next chapter, the first service I attended as the newly-appointed Dean of St. Tikhon’s Seminary was—you guessed it—the Holy Dormition. By her prayers, and beneath her compassion, we take refuge. And we ask God to grant us the grace to say yes to Him as she said yes: in the morning, in the evening, at noonday, and also in the sunset of our lives.
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